Food Cravings and Hormone Control

This question is for women, but the same could apply to men if other hormones fluctuated. 

Do food cravings increase during various stages of your menstrual cycle? 

Women commonly say that they crave chocolate and sugar during various stages of their menstruation cycle. 

Men don't think you are immune to this.  Your hormones can fluctuate also and one of them being the stress hormone cortisol can cause food cravings.  I will discuss this shortly.

Some scientists believe that food cravings may occur as a result of decreased insulin sensitivity to insulin.  This can cause an increase in demand for more insulin to handle all the glucose floating around in the blood.  When this happens is can be common that too much insulin is released causing hypoglycemia and your desire to crave sugar to replenish the low blood sugars you now have. 

How do you improve insulin sensitivity? 

Cardiovascular exercise
Strength training
Increase in fiber intake
Losing weight

Food cravings may also be in response to your cortisol levels.  Cortisol is commonly referred to as the stress hormone because it is released in response to stress.  Cortisol gets your body ready for the "fight or flight" response that stress can trigger. 

There are numerous reactions that take place when cortisol levels are increased and collectively these reactions increase your levels of blood glucose to provide fuel for the stress response. 

This isn't good because now your body triggers more insulin release. 

Stress is also not what you typically think it is.  Yes, it is those times that you external factors are stressing you out (i.e.:  job, family, life), but insulin resistance, hormonal fluctuations, PMS, etc are all systemic stress sources that are increasing your cortisol levels. 

As a result this increased cortisol level can lead to an increase in cravings for food to provide fuel to those reactions I described above that raise your blood sugars. 

As you can see there is a chain reaction that takes place here.  Your cortisol levels increase and cause an increase in blood sugars to be used for energy in metabolic processes.  You then eat or crave high sugar or fatty foods to calm those cravings.  Now your body has all these sugars again so insulin needs to be released to do something with these sugars.  The increase in insulin and cortisol now trigger more cravings. 

You then keep repeating this same vicious cycle. 

Instead of giving in to these food cravings here are some things you can try to reduce your stress and cortisol levels.

Cardiovascular Exercise
Strength Training
Music Therapy
Choose lower sugar foods when you do have cravings you can't control
Losing weight
Relaxation Training

Do you see a few common techniques used in Insulin control and Cortisol control?

Strength training and aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise are excellent in controlling both of these.  Instead of calming your stress with food go to the gym and ramp up the treadmill and get a good run in.  Or go to the dumbbell section of the gym and get an intense strength training routine in.  These types of exercise really burn up the cortisol and effectively lower it. 

Is Serotonin a good thing or bad thing in controlling cravings?

This one is a little tricky to understand because you would think to control this hormone we need to eat more of the foods I just told you that you should avoid. 

Let me explain how serotonin works. 

It is a group of chemicals called neurotransmitters and they help with communication between neurons. 

It is made from tryptophan, which most of us are familiar with and believe is what makes us tired at Thanksgiving because of all the turkey we eat.  The tryptophan in turkey may not be the reason we get tired though. 

Even though turkey and other meats are high in tryptophan they may not be the best for serotonin production because they also have a high amount of other amino acids that compete with tryptophan and can block it from reaching the neurons.

Foods high in simple carbohydrates such as potatoes, breads, and sweets are a better source of serotonin even though they are not high in tryptophan. 

Any idea what actually makes us sleep after eating a Thanksgiving dinner?  😉

When these types of foods are eating insulin is released to control the sugars in the bloodstream from these foods.  Insulin spares tryptophan though and leaves it alone to be converted into serotonin. 

Since these types of carbohydrates are easy to digest this process happens very quickly and what researchers believe to be short term.  This results in you have a craving for more of these foods in order to keep feeling that same pleasurable response that serotonin produces. 

Since serotonin plays a role in regulating your appetite, sleep, mood, and behavior when it gets low we can get hungry or crabby and want both to go away.  Food cravings solve that problem.

Insulin can influence serotonin, cortisol and vice versa so a balance between all three of these hormones is very important in controlling your response to food and cravings. 

If you are resistant to insulin because you are overweight then tryptophan may be blocked, which then reduces your serotonin production.  You then eat more food and your insulin resistance then triggers higher cortisol levels. 

The takeaway from this article is to start implementing some or all of the techniques I have listed to better control insulin sensitivity and to lower your cortisol levels. 

As a result your food cravings should start decreasing. 

I am going to stop here and let you digest this information and start implementing some of these techniques or add/modify to them if you already do some of these techniques.

I will discuss food cravings in relation to you dieting in the next article and what you can do to control cravings during food restrictions for weight loss.

If you missed part one of this series you can read it here>>  The Dreadful Food Cravings




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